Tag Archives: Japan has four seasons

年末年始

ginkgo

I love living in Tokyo, and after the heat of the summer I always look forward to the chill in the air as autumn arrives, to crisp days of blue skies and bright sunshine, to the vivid yellow ginkgo leaves and the flaming red maples.

autumn colours kamiyacho

But there is also something heavy in my heart, I suppose it’s the end of the year and I’m running on empty, but there’s still lots to do. It’s the season of 年末年始 or ‘nen matsu nen shi’, the end of one year and the beginning of the next.

It’s time to buy New Year cards and the special stamps to stick on them, to check with the people you usually send cards whether they have been bereaved this year, in which case, no card for them. It would be inappropriate to send them a ‘Happy New year’ greeting. If you have been bereaved in the past year, the onus is actually on you to send out a different kind of card to pre-empt the sending of New Year cards, reminding or informing people that you are in mourning and therefore not sending or receiving cards this year. I have found that people often just mention it in passing instead of sending the cards, but if you do send the cards then there are special postage stamps for them, too. I have bought my New Year cards, I have bought the special stamps (2014 being the year of the horse, so the stamps have little cartoon horses on them), and I have asked around to see who should not receive a card, so I’m all ready, I just have to write them all now.

new year stamps 2014

It’s also the bonenkai season (忘年会), time for a year-end party at work or with friends. Sometimes in English these social occasions get called Christmas party or dinner, but it’s dinner and/or drinks with friends, it’s the end of the year, it’s a bonenkai. Of course, this also means that there will be more passengers on the evening trains who have been drinking, and so there is a poster in Metro stations:

drunk on platform poster‘Ah! Dangerous! Take care on days when you have drunk too much alcohol,’ the poster warns. While it also mentions that walking and texting is dangerous, it helpfully informs us that 63.5% of people who fall off the platform have been drinking. This goofy poster is apparently part of a drive to have no ‘platform incidents’.

tokyo tower

Christmas is all over Tokyo. Well, Christmas trees, various assorted Santas and reindeer, and adverts for large buckets of chicken followed by strawberry shortcake, the perfect Christmas dinner, brought to you by KFC and 7-eleven. Really. This photo was taken at Tokyo Tower, you can just see the bottom of one of the legs. Think Eiffel Tower, painted red and white. There is an enormous Christmas tree under the tower, and a kind of winding maze of plastic illuminated reindeer, and when I walked past a couple of weeks ago there were a lot of high school girls wandering amongst the reindeer. An instant bucolic idyll, 21st-century Tokyo-style.  Just across the road was this display, angels heralding an office building.

shiba decorations

There are Christmas carols everywhere; my local shopping street has been playing them over the loudspeaker system for a while now. It’s rather odd, and always reminds me of The Prisoner, I feel I am being forced into Christmas early, and all the cutesy, jingly versions of songs and carols are quite surreal. Equally surreal will be the speed with which it all vanishes by December 26th to be replaced by New Year decorations.

So boo, it’s almost the end of the year, and there is still so much to do. Time to finish up the term at school, get all the paperwork finished. Time to do Christmas shopping and write cards (and then New Year cards). Time to pack a suitcase and head back to the UK for a fortnight. So much to do before that. It’s enough to make you feel so exhausted you might fall asleep on someone on the train . . . but that would be inconsiderate, so the latest manner poster addresses it:

manner poster sleepingI do love living in Tokyo. In late autumn and winter the days are usually bright and sunny. I can see Mount Fuji from the train and I’m surrounded by the vibrant colours of Mother Nature’s last hurrah before she hunkers down to wait for spring. It’s good to spend time with friends celebrating the end of another year, it’s good to look forward to travelling. I just wish I had maybe a week or two more and a bit more energy.

Walking through Shibuya station yesterday evening I saw a Buddhist monk standing in the midst of all the commuters. People were rushing about, and in the middle of it all he stood praying and waiting for alms. Just standing there while rush hour carried on around him. Part of Shibuya station is pretty much a construction site at the moment, so there’s the added chaos that brings. He was just standing there, doing his thing, and I thought again, I do love Tokyo.

monk in shibuya

It’s hot

Japan has four seasons. The rainy season is called a season, but does not impact the fact that Japan Has Four Seasons. A vehement shaking of the head.

In winter we remind each other as often as we can that it’s cold. Yes, it’s cold today. It was cold yesterday. Yes, it’s cold. Is your country this cold in winter? Well . . . probably a little colder, but then, we do have central heating, and that makes getting up in the morning a completely different experience.

The rainy season . . . it’s raining. Yes, I know, it’s the rainy season. Oh, the humidity has started. It’s humid today, isn’t it? Is your country humid? No, not like this. Ah, I thought so.

Now, I know that this is an important part of social interaction; we exchange non-threatening small talk about the weather, we agree, we feel better for having agreed and we go on our way.  But in all this, I am reminded of a scene from years and years ago on Fawlty Towers, when Sybil is badgering Basil about something, and he goes away muttering about Mastermind, and ‘Sybil Fawlty, subject, the bleeding obvious’. I do realise that if you’re not British I may have lost you with that last cultural reference, but anyway, moving swiftly on . . .

It’s hot. It’s humid. And while we may be taking part in the great social interaction and confirming widely-believed facts, part of me wants to say, yes, I know, and talking about it just draws our attention to it, surely? Except, I am feeling so wrung-out in the heat that I don’t have the energy to point that out.

It’s hot and humid, did I mention that?

Just as in winter, there are a number of nifty little ideas that Japanese people have used for many years to try to keep cool. Of course, most people have air conditioning at home, and certainly in shops and on trains the AC is quite ferocious, but there are other ways to try to keep cool too.

Wherever you go you will see people fanning themselves. Many people carry a folding fan in their bag or pocket, shops and other businesses often give out the non-folding type as promotional goods, and where neither are available people will use whatever they have to fan themselves; a book, a newspaper, a small towel or their hand. I first starting using a fan in summer when I lived in China, and remember taking several back to the UK because I liked the designs so much. Once I put one in my bag and on a particularly hot day pulled it out to use it and was met by incredulous looks from the people around me. I put it back in my bag and decided that was behaviour best confined to Asia. These days I have a fan in my school bag, one in my handbag, and at least one more at home. When my students pick up their textbook and employ it as a fan instead of the teaching tool it is meant to be, I don’t bat an eye. Go ahead, student! You keep cool any way you can. It’s hot and humid today, isn’t it?

While almost all of us enjoy sitting around in air-conditioned comfort at home, conventional wisdom dictates that sleeping with the AC on is A Very Bad Thing. No good will come of it, you will catch a cold and we shall all roll our eyes knowingly. The appropriate way to sleep on a hot summer night is to use an electric fan, which is surprisingly effective. There are cooling ice pillows (‘cooling’ seeming to be an understatement, what do you think is going to happen if you sleep with your head on a giant ice-cold gel pack?) and the excellently-named towelket. This is the hybrid offspring of a towel and a blanket (I’m sure you’d already figured that one out for yourself), which you use instead of a duvet in summer. I must admit that I don’t use all these things; I have a fan, but sometimes I wake up around 4:30 when the sun is coming up and switch to the AC. No good will come of it, I’m sure.

Summer in Japan also means insects. In most places you would think that that is obvious; hot weather bringing out all kinds of creepy crawlies which we dispose of in a variety of ways. If you’re thinking of mosquitoes and cockroaches, of course, we do the same in Japan. But there are other insects which are greeted with delight. Children go out looking for these mini beasts and carry them home triumphantly. Failing that, you can buy one in a department store, along with its own plastic box and the strange gel it likes to eat.

Last summer I was in Yamanashi on a school trip. On the last day, the Japanese teacher and I found some kind of stag beetle which we knew her young son would like. Between us we picked it up, carried it back to the cottage we were staying in, put it in a plastic box with a slice of Japanese pear, gerry-rigged a net used to catch organic waste in the sink over the box to contain the beetle but allow it to breathe, secured said net with dental floss, and at some point on the bus journey between Yamanashi and Tokyo even named it. It made it back to Tokyo, where my colleague continued to feed it and tend to its needs for several days. It expired before her son returned from his grandparents’ house, but not before she had put considerable energy into its care.

stagbeetleThe cicadas also are an important part of summer, their incredibly loud noise being part of the soundscape. In the last few days I have heard the first ones start up, and they will continue until some time in September.

cicadaAdding to the soundscape in my neighbourhood, of course, is my neighbour’s fondness for wind chimes. We have already had the great cacophony that is the full-on five-chime experience. Friends on Facebook have suggested a variety of remedies but since I do not possess Spiderman-like skills to scale the front of their house and make it up to the second floor to cut the things down, nor can I legally arm myself and take potshots at them (either the chimes or the neighbours) I can only close my windows, turn the AC on and try to ignore the sounds that I can still hear. How they find it relaxing I just don’t know.

The are other traditional Japanese responses to summer. I was in the supermarket today and saw a lot of people buying giant wedges of watermelon. A mobile phone shop was tempting people to stop and find out about some new service by offering free bottles of ramune, a traditional Japanese soda. I saw variety packs of small fireworks on sale in a local shop, which seems to me to be all wrong, since fireworks to a British person mean November 5th, Guy Fawkes, baked potatoes and bonfires, but I suppose to American and French people do mean summer celebrations. There will be giant firework dispays put on by different wards in Tokyo over the summer and people will buy these variety packs to have fun at home, which again creates alarm in me, a British person raised on public service announcements every autumn about the dangers of fireworks and why you should be very careful with them at home.

I have twice seen people at the station or on the train wearing yukata, lightweight summer kimono made of cotton. A few days ago I saw this teenage girl waiting for a train at my local station

stationyukataand today I sat across from this man as he snoozed gently.

summergarb2Alternatively you could go for this all-pink ensemble I saw this morning:

summergarb1Here I sit in air-conditioned comfort (though I must say I am being ecologically responsible and have it set at 28 degrees). I feel a little hypocritical writing of the long, hot, humid summer stretching ahead of us, no relief until probably the end of September. I fly back to the UK on Tuesday. When I get back in August the heat, humidity, insects, will all still be here, but I will have a break from it all.

But have you heard about the British summer?  Sometimes it rains all the time and it isn’t very warm. Then again, it’s been too hot recently. But in my country? No, there’s no humidity, the insects are smaller and we certainly don’t keep them as pets.

I am looking forward to my summer holiday, but I shall miss Japan too; my life is here. It will be good to have a break, visit family and friends, re-charge my batteries, remind myself again just how lucky I am to be European and be able to hop around to other countries easily. But it will be good to come home again.

Wherever you are, I hope you have a wonderful summer.

Sakura / 桜

Sakura 1The end of March and the beginning of April in Tokyo means cherry blossom time. Since April is also the start of the new school year, students’ memories are usually of the Entrance Ceremony under blossoms, and a lot of new 1st years take commemorative photos under the trees.

Not this year. The weather we had earlier in the year meant that the blossoms opened much earlier than usual; I saw the first sakura open in Shinagawa on March 17th. While ordinarily I would have been thrilled to see them this year I wasn’t, because I was flying back to the UK on the 18th, and wouldn’t be back in Japan until the 28th. To add insult to injury, the weather in the UK was foul, and for two days I couldn’t even leave the village:

Snowy garden               Peak District snow                       The photo on the left is the garden, where the snow was up to 30cm deep; the one on the right is the Peak District near Hathersage, where we finally managed to go just before I flew back to Japan. It may look beautiful but it was so cold, and watching all the photos of sakura popping up on Facebook was a frustrating experience. I just kept hoping that some blossoms would hang on until I got back.

I landed at Narita at about 10am on the 28th, and was home by about 1pm. Yes, it took 3 hours, mainly because ‘Tokyo New International Airport’, which is Narita’s official name, is misleading; it’s not even in Tokyo, but 60km away from the centre of the city, in Chiba prefecture. While I was waiting for the bus back into the city I was relieved to see some blossoms, and on the bus I received messages from friends telling me I would still be able to do o-hanami (お花見, or cherry blossom viewing) if I got my skates on.

So, back home and then into school to see the sakura there. We have quite a lot of old trees and the driveway and landscaped garden are beautiful. It’s a pity the new students won’t see them at all this year, but the students who have been coming to school for club activities have been able to enjoy them. I spent a happy time with a friend and colleague taking photos of our blossoms,

blossoms at schooland repeated a photo I had taken last year

reflection of sakuraof blossoms reflected in the stream in the landscaped garden. I have to confess that when I took a photo like this last year I was really trying to take one of all the tadpoles but ended up with the reflected blossoms instead. This year, it was on purpose!

Having successfully viewed the blossoms at school, I decided to leave early for church (the Maundy Thursday service started at 7pm) and stopped off in Naka Meguro (中目黒) where the sakura line the river.

Naka Meguro 2Since it’s not too far from where I live it’s my favourite place to go. I arrived there about 4pm so the light was fading a little and the blossoms were a little past their best, but it was still beautiful. The petals were already starting to fall into the water and some of the leaves were opening too.

Petals falling     Blossom with leavesThere were still quite a lot of people walking along the river, and there were some stalls selling snacks, but I imagine it was much more crowded the previous weekend when the sakura were considered ‘mankai’ (満開), or in full bloom. Still, I felt happy that I had managed to come back in time to enjoy them.

At the beginning of this new week the petals are falling fast and there are a lot of leaves on the trees now. I missed the sakuras’ full glory this year but at least I saw some. My favourite trees are just down the road from where I live, because there is a regular sakura and a weeping one side by side, and together their blossoms are beautiful.

cherry & weeping cherry

However, for sheer breath-taking, over-the-top frothy pinkness, it’s worth walking around the Imperial Palace, or going to Aoyama Cemetery, Naka Meguro or any other place where there are large numbers of trees.

I used to find it all a bit much, I thought it was annoying that any shop that could would create a pink or sakura version of their products. (Sakura tofu, anyone? Actually it’s very good.) I’m also not a fan of huge crowds (yes, I know I live in a crowded metropolis, but anyway . . .) so sitting on a blue tarpaulin with a generator (for that personal karaoke experience) or fighting my way through crowds didn’t appeal. But I have made my peace with the noise and the crush, I have found the places which are a little less crowded, chosen times when a lot of people will be at work, and now every year look forward to that short time when Tokyo goes pink, when we all go outside and wonder at the beauty of it all.